Genaro Oliveira: Brazil's 'soft coup' is not the end of a lively democracy

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Brazil's ousted President Dilma Rousseff ends her address to supporters. Photo / AP
Brazil's ousted President Dilma Rousseff ends her address to supporters. Photo / AP

Brazilians waited for the final round of the presidential impeachment process more anxiously than any Olympic competition. While most Kiwis were sleeping last night, millions watched senators cast their final vote to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office.

The decision hammers a final nail in the coffin of a polemical impeachment process that began late in 2015, dividing the country between those who accused Rousseff of fiscal crimes and those who claimed she was the victim of a parliamentary "soft coup" engineered by a resentful opposition.

Beyond the controversial trial, the Senate's decision also brings an end to at least three major issues in recent Brazilian history; the reign of the first woman ever elected as Brazil's head of state; the 13-year period of uncontested political dominance by the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) and above all, brings the party's 40-year success story to a drastic full stop.

Until recently, this story was seen as a political fairytale. The year was 1980. Brazil had been living for nearly two decades under a brutal military dictatorship. On top of political repression, there was unaccountable public spending by the military regime that would result in austerity, soaring inflation and humiliating IMF loans.

That is when a group of left-wing intellectuals, artists, unionists, students and even "theology of liberation" Catholic priests, decided to establish a new party representing most Brazilians, not just the elite. Its main leader became Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva.

Born in one of Brazil's poorest regions, Lula spent most of his childhood doing all sorts of street work to help his large family, from selling oranges to shining shoes. Despite every obstacle, he managed to study for a technical diploma.

This got him a job in one of Brazil's recently built auto factories and most importantly, contact with the Brazilian union movement. Against all odds, the poor kid from the countryside transformed himself into a folk hero among the workers and a central player in Brazilian politics.

After patiently standing for office three times (1989, 1994, 1998), he was finally elected in 2002. I remember the ecstasy of seeing Lula's inauguration live on TV. So different from previous ceremonies, this one felt genuine.

Lula's humble origins, faulty spoken Portuguese and wearied mestizo body (including a missing finger from a past factory accident) had made him accessible and likeable to most Brazilians. Under Lula's two consecutive governments (2003-2009), Brazil experienced massive economic growth, a decrease in inequality, record-low unemployment and recognition as an emerging global power.

Lula stepped down from office with a nearly 90 per cent approval rating. In 2010, he would make dreams turn into reality once again by using his political prestige to help the then largely unknown Dilma Rousseff, a non-career politician and former guerrilla fighter, become Brazil's first female president.

But some fairy tales end unhappily, and the story has now taken a further twist. Dilma is out and Lula might face prison for allegedly obstructing judicial investigations.

This ending is worse if we factor in that at least a third of those leading the impeachment process (opposition lower-house deputies and senators) are themselves accused of crimes. Even sadder is many of today's coup leaders were members of the PT coalition base until recently. They include former vice and now acting President Michel Temer, strategically handpicked by Dilma in one of the many realpolitik decisions the PT engaged in to rise and stay in power.

This took its toll. The PT has forever lost its "ethical party" aura, as well as much of its electoral base.

From whatever side it's viewed, the impeachment process was never about seeking justice or upholding democracy. It has always been a judicial farce masking a nasty power dispute between elite political factions - the PT itself having become elitist in recent years.

However I don't want to join the pessimistic chorus of those claiming it's a sign of Brazil's feeble democracy or corrupt institutions. Although I disapprove of the new post-impeachment government even more than Dilma's, I know it will also face fierce opposition, leading to change.

Most Latin American democratic gains have been made of bottom-up, grassroots, non-televised events. Images of noisy dissatisfied crowds, street demonstrations, strikes and police repression are often showcased by foreign media as proof of the region's instability. I prefer to see them as signs of an alive and healthy democratic tradition.

Brazilian-born Dr Genaro Oliveira is a lecturer at the New Zealand Centre for Latin American Studies at The University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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